HAREDI: Behind the label is a world apart


BP photo by Ariela Feitelberg

PLAYING: Young Haredi boys grow their payot long and their tzitzit out.

By Leila Miller, Editor-in-Chief

Many girls at Bais Yaakov – an all-girls Haredi high school in West Hollywood – don’t know who Brad Pitt or Justin Bieber are. But they also don’t care.

“I don’t listen to non-Jewish music,” said Sarah, a sophomore with nine siblings, while she worked on Purim decorations with other students after school in early March. “Most girls don’t. It’s not a specific rule. I don’t feel like I’m missing out.”

Daniel Pomerand, a junior at Yeshiva Gedolah, an all-boys Haredi high school on West Olympic Boulevard, spends 15 hours a day in school – eight studying Judaic subjects.

“Everything we do has an effect on our lives,” Daniel said. “We feel that by going to a movie, that’s a distraction you have that takes away from Jewish life and helping other people and your learning.”

Rachel — whose name, like those of all girls in this report, has been changed at her request — is a senior at Bnos Esther, a small Chasidic school on Formosa Drive.

“A young girl can easily be influenced,” said Rachel. “It’s hard [to keep the religion] if you’re going to allow certain things into your life, as strong as you think you’ll be. When you have the chinuch [upbringing] and the teachings of what my school offers, that’s what helps you become a strong person — strong to support your husband in learning, strong to raise your children like that.”

Haredi translates as “he who is fearful of the word of God,” and not all of those in Los Angeles whom others might call Haredi use that term for themselves, partly because of dislike of labels and also because some associate the term with religious extremists in Israel.

But there is a community centered in the La Brea neighborhood that insulates itself from the secular world, engaging in shidduchim  — arranged marriages – avoiding going to the movies and listening to secular music, and focusing above all on Torah study.

Rabbi Yoel Bursztyn, the Educational Director of Bais Yaakov, said his school can be described as Haredi, and he explained what being Haredi means to him.

“Haredi means that my religion is such that I won’t fool around with it,” said Rabbi Bursztyn. “Anything that would inconvenience me is irrelevant if that’s what the Torah is teaching me to do.”

Shalhevet Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg said the difference between Modern Orthodox and Haredi Judaism is not attitude toward the Torah, but that Haredi don’t consider modern values even when they don’t conflict with the Torah. For example, Haredim still prevent women from studying Talmud because of tradition, while Modern Orthodoxy takes women’s intellectual, spiritual and religious curiosity into account.

“Modern Orthodoxy doesn’t take its cues from inconvenience,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said. “It evolves from changing values in the world.”

But Rabbi Burstzyn thinks that outside viewpoints are irrelevant.

“The will of the Torah is what I fear,” Rabbi Bursztyn said. “It’s a positive fear. My love [for it] is so great that everything else becomes completely irrelevant.”

His community is also deeply troubled by what it sees as a negative perception of the Haredi.  December tension over religious extremism in Israel was sparked when members of the Haredi community in Beit Shemesh spat on a Modern Orthodox school girl walking to school because they thought she wasn’t dressed modestly; she was wearing a skirt below the knee and a blouse with mid-length sleeves.

Clashes – sometimes violent – between the Haredi and secular Israeli community followed as the incident gained media attention. Orthodox men walking out of a military ceremony where women were singing, and secular Jews protested against “kosher” buses in Beit Shemesh where women must sit in the back of the bus for modesty reasons.

Also bubbling to the surface were seculars’ lingering resentments over the fact that Haredim don’t have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, because their study of Torah is officially equal in importance.

Daniel recognized the misconceptions people have towards Haredim and tried to correct them.

“They think we’re better than other people because we’re more religious,” he said. “We don’t think that at all – the Torah tells us to love every Jew and we love our people. “Especially after the Beit Shemesh incident, that was a completely isolated event. People think that all Haredi boys don’t talk to girls and won’t say ‘good Shabbos’ to girls.”

He said that Haredi boys are not isolated from the outside world like some may think.

“Me and my friends are into stocks and I read newspapers cover to cover every weekend,” Daniel said. “Everyone has to separate their differences and put them aside and come together because that’s what we need right now.”

Daniel added that he plays basketball for an hour-and-a-half a day.

“We’re not just learning machines,” he said. “We can’t completely shut ourselves from the outside world or else you become crazy. We play sports, we exercise – we have a lot of fun.”

However, the Haredi still live in an insular community.

Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik, director of the Jewish Learning Exchange, which works to bring religious observance and knowledge to non-religious Jews, said being Haredi is “living a humble, simple lifestyle.”

Rabbi Czapnik doesn’t have a TV in his home, and his seven children attended Bnos Esther and Yeshiva Gedolah before going to seminary or yeshiva.
However, he is reluctant to label himself as Haredi.

“I’m trying to be a religious Jew,” he said. “I fit into the yeshivish category, the Haredi category. These terms are dismissive… I don’t find them helpful.”
Rabbi Yitzhak Adlerstein, Director of Interfaith Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, describes himself as a “modern Haredi,” explaining that he participates in the secular world while living an insulated life.

“Lots of [Haredi] people in the U.S. are living in two worlds,” Rabbi Adlerstein said. “I work in the Modern Orthodox community, I have a secular education.”
Rabbi Adlerstein said Haredim try to live in as “delighted isolation” as possible, with a lifestyle focusing on the centrality of Torah. “The Modern Orthodox world takes more risks in allowing things in,” he said. “Some groups argue that’s silly and toxic to the authenticity of important Jewish values. “What motivates people to be Haredi is the lifestyle. It’s a world with a lot of passion and emotion.”

Haredi families have created a vibrant community, albeit with different goals than the non-Haredi one.

According to Rabbi Bursztyn some students at his school come from non-Haredi families.

“We don’t care… as long as she’s here to learn and doesn’t come with an agenda,” Rabbi Bursztyn said. “We are who we are.”
School at Bais Yaakov – a tall silver building at 7373 Beverly Boulevard – starts at 8:05 a.m. and goes until 4:30 p.m., with Judaic Studies classes taking up half the day. There are many student committees, including a Lashon Hara committee and a group of 10 girls known as the “chessed drivers,” who organize chessed events.
Colorful posters in the hallways proclaiming “Don’t forget a lashon hara free diet” remind girls not to be hurtful, and every student is paired up with a “little sister” from an elementary or middle school in the beginning of the year. The students also put on a song and dance festival, called “Halleli,” every two years, which as many as 500 women attend.

“Bais Yaakov is very based on chessed” – deeds of lovingkindness – said Mrs. Sylvia Heyman, a longtime English teacher at Bais Yaakov, adding that the school also has a puppy adoption program.  “It’s also based on developing the creative side of a student,” Mrs. Heyman said. “Bais Yaakov stresses that if a person is not so bright intellectually, you have to develop their other fields.”

Girls are often at school on weekends, coming in on Sunday for make-up exams or on Saturday nights for social programs and movie screenings. There are themed Shabbatons, and sometimes Bais Yaakov hires a band to play on motzei Shabbat.

Sarah, a 10th grader, is one of the heads of the Carnival Committee and recalled how the girls once made the hallways look like a sukkah.

“It’s a family,” Sarah said. “I have a home away from home.”

Most of the girls don’t have TV at home, and the school has a rule that students can’t go to the movies. Instead, the school shows Jewish films made by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, an Orthodox non-profit organization.

“The next day you shudder every time you want to say something about someone – these are words and one has to think about them,” said Hannah, reflecting on a movie she had seen at school the Saturday night before about the effect of gossip.

The girls don’t socialize with boys; most will enter the shidduchim process after seminary, one year after high school. They follow a dress code consisting of a mid-calf length skirt and a long-sleeved shirt with a neckline above the collarbone.

“We would be embarrassed if the school had other expectations – Bais Yaakov is a movement,” said Sarah, who said talking to teenage boys is “a foreign concept.” “No one in our circle does that,” she said. “We associate talking with boys with marriage.”

Rabbi Bursztyn echoed the girls.

“We cater only to certain type of people,” Rabbi Bursztyn said, “and people who don’t behave outside of school the way it’s expected to behave inside of school don’t belong in the movement. If you think talking to a boy is something you do, Shalhevet is the place to go.”

Whatever their similarities, schools within the Haredi community also have their differences. Rachel from Bnos Esther described Bais Yaakov as an “in-the-middle community school.”

“The way we conduct ourselves is basically the same thing, [but] Bais Yaakov will look at us as extreme,” Rachel said.

She said girls from Bnos Esther aren’t allowed to bring their phones to school or go to Coffee Bean, for example, while girls from Bais Yaakov do.

“It’s that extra sensitivity, if you want to call it that,” Rachel said.

The problem with Coffee Bean, she said, isn’t Coffee Bean itself so much as the implications of being seen in public – something the Boiling Point encountered when trying to photograph the girls at Bais Yaakov and wasn’t allowed to because, Rabbi Burstzyn said, the photos would be seen by boys at Shalhevet.

“They want that we shouldn’t be out and about and everyone seeing us,” said Rachel. “It’s not that we have to be kept in our rooms.”

Rachel described Bnos Esther as “more closed and tight,” explaining that while Bais Yaakov has girls who are from different backgrounds, and it wouldn’t be that unusual to see a girl who had transferred from YULA, Bnos Esther doesn’t have that kind of diversity.

According to Mrs. Heyman, who created Bais Yaakov’s honors English program, although secular books with Greek mythology, Christian content, vile language, romance or “anti-Torah values” are barred, students still have ample material to work with.

“We’re limited in the kind of books that the girls are allowed to read because they have to be appropriate for the morals of Bais Yaakov,” she said. Louisa May Alcott, Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare are in the curriculum, but not The Scarlett Letter, which deals with the aftermath of adultery.

“Whatever we do, we do through what I call frum-colored glasses. We’ll discuss the Torah perspective on issues in a piece of literature.”

After high school the girls go on to seminary either in Israel or in the United States, after which many attend Maalot, a Jewish educational center in Los Angeles that gives college credit. Smaller groups go to Touro or Stern College, Jewish institutions for higher education, to earn secular degrees.

Few Bais Yaakov alumni attend secular colleges.

“It totally happens but is not common,” said Hannah, a Bais Yaakov senior who has taken three APs and thinks she’ll go to Maalot after seminary. “Sometimes it’s the women who want to support a family.”

Mrs. Heyman said she had two Bais Yaakov graduates who were accepted to Harvard but opted to attend Stern.

“It has nothing to do with intellect or being prepared — it has to do with your value system,” Mrs. Heyman said. “If you can be in an environment that’s compatible with your value system, then you’re going to do it.”

“The goal is to really achieve an intelligent Jewish mother,” said Mrs. Heyman. “It’s not so you can be the president of the United States, it’s so you can be a good mother and raise children.”

Rabbi Bursztyn said regardless of whether they decide to attend a secular college, it’s important that the girls have a mentor – usually a rabbi – to help them decide their future education.

“College is like a hospital,” he said. “No one looks forward to going there. They don’t consider themselves a better person because they were there. Torah education is something you live for. It’s your life, it’s your oxygen. Secular education – it’s a means to do things.”
Leah, an alumna of Bais Yaakov now studying at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, says her career path isn’t typical of Bais Yaakov graduates, and calls herself a “modern Haredi.” “Putting 25 hours a day into law school is not conducive to looking for guys and that sort of thing,” she said.

But she added that the Haredi community is coming around to the idea of women having professional careers.

“If you want to support entire households while husbands learn they need to be more than secretaries and teachers,” Leah said.

At first Leah attended nursing school because “that’s what frum girls do,” but then she decided to pursue a different career.

“This is my dream and I wanted to do it, so I dropped out of nursing school,” Leah said. “My really religious friends said, ‘Good for you but how are you going to get married?’”

Leah said she tries to find time for dating between her studies but it’s difficult.

“I’m 23 and I feel double the pressure because half of my high school class is married,” she said.

For many, however, the Haredi lifestyle is liberating.

“When you look at it, the answer to anything seems no, but really when you experience it it’s more,” said Rachel, a senior at Bnos Esther, who first heard of Facebook “a while ago” and says she’s not interested in keeping up with pop culture. “By having our restrictions it’s a much freer lifestyle, because it helps us get to what we want to get.”

This story won Honorable Mention in the 2012 Story of the Year Competition, Diversity category, sponsored by the National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA).

Related: Haredi dating: Rabbis, research, resumes and a look into the soul 6/8/2012

Related: From Beit Shemesh, a spark that exposed a simmering fire 6/8/2012

EDITORIAL: When you hear the word ‘Haredi’… 6/10/2012